The grand slam of the outdoors can only be described as cross-country skiing or mountain biking beautiful trails in the Boise Mountains, heading into town for dinner of grilled salmon in huckleberry sauce and then topping off the day with a soak in a hot springs.
With Idaho’s steamy granite geology, it’s easier than you think, with so many recreation trails and rivers located near down-home cafes and soothing hot springs from New Meadows to Idaho City to Hagerman. Exercise, food and a soak: What more can you ask for in an outdoor adventure?
Hot springs have been used by trekkers for thousands and thousands of years, from those in moccasins to those in bike cleats. Artifacts and petroglyphs left by ancient people around hot springs prove their popularity. (Hopefully, modern travelers aren’t leaving artifacts representing present times, such as beer cans, gum wrappers and other micro trash.)
The choices abound for hot springs and recreation in Idaho. The state has more than 200 thermal springs ranging in temperature from 68 to 200 degrees, with most of them located from Idaho County south, according to hot springs information provided in an Idaho State University report.
The southern part of the state is bubbling with hot springs because the heat of the Earth is concentrated near enough to the surface, similar to Yellowstone National Park. It’s in these places where the surface of the Earth is stretched thinner, allowing thermal water to escape. Areas like this occur over much of the Snake River Plain and Great Basin.
Here are a few hot springs to explore after a day on the trail or river:
THE ASPENS OF PONDEROSA
Activity: Ponderosa State Park in McCall offers some of the best fall hiking or biking around. The stunning beauty of the 1,000-acre park, which is on a peninsula in Payette Lake, is hard to beat with glowing aspen spicing up miles of centuries-old ponderosa pines. Add the reds and purples of underbrush combined with the blues of the lake, and it’s an unforgettable fall adventure.
A favorite scenic bike ride is from the visitors center to a scenic overlook at Osprey Point, where you can put in about 5 miles round trip. The spectacular view of the lake is well worth the climb to the overlook.
As winter approaches, the park’s snowshoe and cross-country ski trails are another bonus. The park usually has 13 miles of groomed Nordic ski trails and a little more than 3.2 miles of designated snowshoe trails in the mountainous terrain. The park also has one dog trail, Rovers Round-About.
Getting there: Drive 102 miles north on Idaho 55 from Boise to McCall and follow the signs to the park.
Dining out: After a day’s activities at Ponderosa State Park, set your sights on Buffalo Gal (buffalogalidaho.com): Global Comfort Food in Donnelly on the way home. It’s difficult to make a decision from the menu, which includes items like Argentinean Braised Beef Brisket and Vietnamese Pork and Noodles.
Hot springs: Follow dinner with a soak at nearby Gold Fork Hot Springs. The hot springs, located up the Gold Fork River south of Donnelly, boasts alkaline, mineral-rich waters in a beautiful mountain setting. Prices: adults, $8; children 11 and under, $6. Information: (208) 890-8730; goldforkhotsprings.com.
Activity: Fall and early winter is a prime time for steelhead fishing in the Salmon River near Riggins, but it can be a freezing affair going days with chilled hands and toes and the iciness that river winds can bring. But hey — they say if you’re not out there in all kinds of weather, you’re not steelhead fishing.
The river canyon from Vinegar Creek downstream to Hammer Creek offers miles and miles of bank and boat fishing. There are plenty of outfitters in the Riggins area that provide fishing trips in drift boats and jet boats. Check out the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association website at ioga.org for details.
It’s a time when Hot Shots and Green-Butt Skunks reign on the river — lures and flies that entice the big anadromous fish to bite on their way back to spawning grounds from the Pacific Ocean.
Getting there: Drive about 150 miles north of the Treasure Valley on Idaho 55 and U.S. 95 to Riggins and go upriver or downriver.
Dining: A sure way of relaxing and shaking the cold is to head to the River Rock Cafe in Riggins. A favorite on the menu is The River Rock calzone with chicken, artichoke hearts, caramelized onions, chopped garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and a blend of mozzarella cheese with pesto sauce.
Hot springs: After dinner, it’s only about 40 minutes south on U.S. 95 to Zim’s Hot Springs at New Meadows. Camping and swimming are available at the hot springs, which is nestled along the Little Salmon River in Meadows Valley. Prices: adults, $7.50; under 18, $6.50. Information: (208) 347-2686; zimshotsprings.com.
IN THE BOISE MOUNTAINS
Activity: Logging roads (ski trails in winter) wind through ponderosa forests between Mores Creek and Beaver Creek summits, offering views of mountain ridges, open bowls above the South Fork of the Payette River Canyon and winding trails along Beaver Creek and Crooked River.
It’s the place for more than 50 miles of riding through the Boise National Forest, northeast of Idaho City, with access from the Whoop-Um-Up, Gold Fork and Banner Ridge parking lots.
Although it’s a mountain biking haven, you needn’t let snow put a damper on the trail system. In winter, it turns into a major cross-country ski and snowshoeing area with a variety of groomed trails for all levels.
Getting there: The trailheads are reached by driving on Idaho 21, northeast of Boise, about 18 to 25 miles past Idaho City.
In winter, the cost of using the trails is an annual Idaho Park ‘N’ Ski permit, $25; or a three-day permit for $7.50, which is the minimum number of days you can buy.
Dining: Set your sights on Trudy’s Kitchen in Idaho City for a variety of soups, sandwiches and dinners. My favorites are the Reuben sandwich or the grilled salmon with huckleberry sauce. Don’t forget the coconut cream pie for dessert.
Hot springs: Now for the warm, cozy part. The Springs is just down the road from Trudy’s on the way to Boise. The Springs offers lots of resort-style amenities and pool-side beverages. If you want to combine dinner and a soak, the resort offers salads, small plates and sandwiches. I love the roasted turkey breast panini with what craft beer is on tap. Wine is also available. Prices: adults, $16; children 12 and under, $10. Information: (208) 392-9500; thespringsid.com.
REMOTE OFF-TRAIL XC SKIING
Activity: The Bull Trout Lake area, near Stanley, offers remote backcountry Nordic skiing and snowshoeing on everything from a flat 4-mile round-trip ungroomed road to the lake, to climbs to peaks for Telemark skiing.
Bull Trout Lake is 2 miles off Idaho 21 in the Salmon River Mountains between the small towns of Lowman and Stanley.
The winter trailhead is a makeshift trailhead. It’s only good if the plow driver is kind enough to keep the shoulder of the highway plowed. Most of the time it is plowed, but Idaho 21 in this area can close because of avalanches.
Still, it’s one of the best places for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in a beautiful meadow and mountain setting.
Getting there: Drive Idaho 21 about 90 miles from Boise to milepost 107. Information: Boise National Forest map.
Dining: The Sourdough Cafe is conveniently located between the Bull Trout Lake area and Kirkham Hot Springs along Idaho 21 for the trip home. Stop in for cinnamon rolls or sourdough pancakes. The cafe also offers a special hamburger and sandwich menu. Fish and chips are a hit on Fridays, and there’s prime rib on Saturdays.
Hot Springs: Kirkham Hot Springs, located near a U.S. Forest Service campground of the same name, features shallow rock hot pools next to the South Fork of the Payette River. It is one of the most popular hot springs along the South Fork corridor. Visitors like the multiple hot waterfalls that make great showers. There’s a $5 day use fee if you park inside the campground. There’s a large parking area off the highway outside the campground, but it’s a fairly good walk to the hot springs. Kirkham Campground is located about 5 miles east of Lowman at milepost 77.
Another option for a hot springs, if the gravel road is not closed by snow, is Sacajawea Hot Springs near the Sawtooth Lodge on the banks of the South Fork of the Payette River near Grandjean. You can snowshoe or cross-country ski 6 miles in to enjoy the winter solitude. That could be another adventure.
Sacajawea Hot Springs is a series of small rock pools along the river that can be seen from the road. The scenery of the river canyon and Sawtooth Wilderness is awesome.
MIDDLE FORK PAYETTE
Activity: The Middle Fork of the Payette River Road, north of Crouch, is a well-known groomed snowmobile trail that offers miles of riding in the area with routes going as far north as Smiths Ferry and then over to Clear Creek and the Warm Lake area. In winter, the only way to get to Silver Creek Plunge, a hot springs, is by snowmobile.
In fall, the Middle Fork Road and the road along Silver Creek make a wonderful scenic drive loop with stop-offs for fishing in the Middle Fork of the Payette River.
Hot springs: Silver Creek Plunge is a unique resort in the mountains with a full-service hot springs with cabins, convenience store, snack bar and pool.
On New Year’s Eve, the resort even shoots off fireworks and serves dinner on an enclosed patio. You’ll have to plan ahead for New Year’s Eve and get in by snowmobile. Cabin availability and reservations can be obtained by phone. Call (208) 739-3400. Pool prices: adults, $10; children 12 and under, $8; under 2, free.
Getting there: From Idaho 55 at Banks, go east on the Banks-Lowman Road. Turn left onto the Middle Fork Road and go through Crouch all the way north to the snowmobile loading area. Silver Creek Plunge is about 15 miles from the loading area.
Dining: On the way back to Boise, stop in at Kit’s Riverside Restaurant in Horsehoe Bend. My favorite on the menu is the Hawaiian Chicken Sandwich. The restaurant also has pizza and craft beer.
RIVER TOURING, HOT SPRINGS
Activity: The Snake River in the Thousand Springs area near Hagerman has miles of flatwater paddling on the main river, along Billingsley Creek and over to places like Ritter Island and Blueheart Springs. Blueheart Springs is extremely clear because of the spring water bubbling up from the bottom.
The Snake River here offers paddlers excellent views and photo opportunities of Thousand Springs, one of the largest waterfalls in the area.
Many paddlers start their trips at places like Banbury Hot Springs, located nine miles south of Hagerman on U.S. 30. The river access along this section of the Snake is private, and some areas may charge access fees.
Idaho Guide Service, at 17940 U.S. 30 in Hagerman, offers guided trips on the river or will rent boats. For information: (208) 734-4998; idahoguideservice.com.
Dining: Dinner is only a short ways away in Hagerman at the Snake River Grill, where the menu is an adventure in itself. How about an appetizer of Idaho alligator served with chipotle aoli? Yes, Idaho alligator. Or sweet blue crab and artichoke hearts baked in a creamy cheese sauce and served with brochettes?
My favorite dinner is grilled Idaho catfish fillets served with lemon and tarter sauce. You can also get grilled sturgeon, which is a treat.
Getting there and hot springs: It’s a hot springs mecca all along U.S. 30 between Hagerman and Buhl (about 90 minutes from Boise):
Miracle Hot Springs refers to itself as a Geothermal Oasis in the Desert. Prices: adults, $8; children, 4 to 15, $4; under 4, $1. Information: (208) 543-6002; mhsprings.com.
1000 Springs Resort: 1000 Springs offers something for everyone, with swimming, private baths and a wading pool. Prices: adults, $7; ages 6-17, $6; ages 1-5, $3. Information: (208) 837-4987; 1000springsresort.com.
Banbury Hot Springs: In addition to a large geothermal artesian swimming pool, the resort offers private mineral hot tubs and jacuzzis, an RV park with full hookups and a campground. Prices: ages 16-54, $10; 55 and over, $8; ages 4-15, $4. Information: (208) 543-4098: banburyhotsprings.com.
Pete Zimowsky (aka Zimo) has been trekking trails, floating rivers and fishing waters across Idaho and the Northwest for more than 50 years. He sure does enjoy soaking in a hot springs in the wide-open outdoors.